Posted on November 5, 2005 by Flames
I’ve recently finished To Charles Fort, With Love. To the best of my knowledge (although I could be wrong) this volume marks the third set of short stories that Ms. Kiernan has done.
I’ve read a few reviews of this book that make statements like “Kiernan has finally found her voice,” or “this set of stories flow together so much better than [insert title of short story collection here].” I’m not completely sure that I agree. Granted, the lines that bind some of these stories together, or with her other novels like Threshold or Low Red Moon are a lot more sturdy, but to say that these stories are where Caitlin finally found her author’s voice just strikes me as a little misinformed. Caitlin’s had her voice for several years now, and while it may not be a shout, it is most certainly distinct and it carries.
If you need to know who Charles H. Fort is, then the best place that I’ve found to read up on his life and what he did with it is located online at the Wikipedia entry. To understand why Fort is important enough to Kiernan for her to devote an entire volume of short fiction to him, all you have to do is crack the cover of the book and take a look inside. Kiernan starts the book out with a factual accounting of her real-life search for H. P. Lovecraft’s fabled coastal harbor town of Innsmouth. A lot of her search is based on her own knowledge of geological science coupled with a familiarity with Lovecraft that borders on the most intimate possible, and while a lot of the trip she made to New England was documented in her online journal, the rest of it – the untold parts, the parts that inspire wonder and a strangeness that would have made Mr. Fort himself smile a little smile beneath his thick mustache – is contained in the preface of her love note to Fort.
Thirteen stories follow the strange preface of Kiernan’s New England holiday, and the number of stories is, although I’m not sure intentional, somewhat appropriate given the spirit of the book itself.
Valentia tells the story of a woman’s encounter on the Irish coast with things that should not be, and by the rationale of the educated mind, simply cannot be… but that are. Sometimes the world and the reality in which we exist as simple beings throws a curve ball into the window through which we view the world around us. The window shatters, and once broken, is more than a little difficult to replace.
Spindleshanks (New Orleans, 1956) is a story of the weird and of the unexplainable as much as it is a ghost story set in the home of two women in New Orleans, and in many ways it is the classic example of Kiernan’s storytelling style. Kiernan doesn’t always hand the answers to her readers, and in fact, a lot of times there are no answers. There is simply an event or a series of events that breach the barriers that may or may not exist between the world that we claim as our own and those that exist simultaneously beyond said barriers. Strange things happen… and we are but witnesses to them. We cannot hope to understand or to even comprehend these happenings. We can only seek to live our lives knowing that we are somehow insignificant in the grand scheme of things. This same theme is apparent in pretty much all of the stories contained within the pages of To Charles Fort, With Love.
So Runs the World Away takes us to Rhode Island, the home of Lovecraft and of the big, yellow house at 315 Benefit Street. The house where the vampires sleep in the day. The house where witches may have once lived a long, long time ago. The house where the Children of the Cuckoo and the Warrens of the Ghouls lie undisturbed and underneath. The house where Dead Girl schemes against a peer named Gable. This story has a whole lot of connections with the majority of the rest of Kiernan’s work, which is expanding as I write this with her current work in progress, The Daughter of Hounds.
Standing Water is perhaps my second favorite story offered up in this collection. Sometimes, a simple puddle of water is just a muddy pothole. Sometimes, however, it is something more. Kiernan’s ability to be just plain creepy is showcased here, and while a lot of what she writes is hard pressed to be labelled as “horror,” if you take just a few minutes to think about what’s being presented in a story like Standing Water, it will scare the living shit out of you.
Le Mer de Reves tells a story so incredibly strange that I had to read it a couple of times over… and I’m still not completely sure that I “get it.” Again, there are worlds that exist in tandem with our own. Sometimes, when our world and these worlds come too close together, the friction that ensues raises a blister in reality. Le Mer de Reves is a story – at least I think that it is – about one of these blisters. That’s my take on it, at least. Caitlin might think of it differently, but if she does, she has yet to say so.
The Road of Pins could work as well as a script for The Outer Limits as it does as a short story. Almost completely cinematic in its narration, the story works out almost as a modern-day, surrealist’s take on Little Red Riding Hood.
Onion tells the story of a static rip in the skin of reality that I mentioned earlier. Again, the issue of complete and total resolution will escape the reader because, as I’ve said and as I know Kiernan believes and Fort attempted to convince the world in his time and through his work, we simply cannot explain the weird. If we could explain it, then it would be definable by science and dogma and would be anything but weird. How these rips between realities – these blisters, if you will – affect the people who stumble into them is another story, a story that can actually be told and, in that sense, explained to a certain degree.
Apokatastasis is another ghost story. Kiernan’s written a few of them in her volumes of short fiction, but in my opinion as someone who has read the vast majority of her work, this one is the absolute best. From beginning to end, this story seems predictible, but is anything but. The image of the description of the black dog-like thing and its smile is haunting, as is the scenery that Kiernan paints with words of the apartment and the painting in the story. Her words are vivid enough so that the mind of the reader has to do little or no work to obtain a mental screenplay from the story she’s telling.
La Peau Verte is the story of a girl cum woman who has been haunted all of her life by the existence of things that everyone else in her life, and indeed, most of the world-at-large, dismiss as fantastical. A story written by Kiernan under the verdant influence of absinthe (she acknowledges this in the afterword for the story), the swirling story harkens up images of Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal under darker, perhaps more sinister, lighting. The girl cum woman finds herself not only ensorceled by what she has dismissed as her imagination throughout her life, she embraces it.
The Dead and the Moonstruck is my absolute favorite story in this collection, and takes the reader right back to the yellow house on Benefit Street to tell us the story of Starling Jane’s coming-of-age among the hounds and the changelings. Starling Jane is a supporting character in Kiernan’s novel Low Red Moon as well.
Following The Dead and the Moonstruck are three stories that, put together over the years, works as a bit of a trilogy of sorts. Kiernan has named the three stories collectively as the Dandridge Cycle – being stories that take place in the house erected on the breakers of the Pacific Ocean by one Machen Dandridge upon his marraige and subsequent relocation to California around the turn of the century. A Redress for Andromeda, Nor the Demons Down Under the Sea, and Andromeda Among the Stones can all be read as stand-alone stories, but together they tell a tale of a family’s secret, or rather the price that a family pays for its knowledge of a secret, that is kept by the deep sea.
As a whole, To Charles Fort, With Love is the best collection of Kiernan’s work of short fiction that any enthusiast of her work could ask for. For those who are new to Kiernan’s work, the stories that are printed through the pages of this volume will only serve to pique a reader’s hunger for more of the world as it is seen through Kiernan’s eyes and, perhaps, her dreams. Somewhere in those dreams of the deep sea and of fossils too strange to exist, through landscapes of blood red grass and of faeries that haunt old wells, through skies that are the color of bruises and oppressive, haunted Alabama steel mills, I hope that one night Caitlin Kiernan will find Charles H. Fort. When she does, I’m absolutely certain that he’ll take her hand, kiss it softly, and thank her for honoring him with her dedicated love letter.
Reviewer: Shannon W. Hennessy